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Monday, October 14, 2019

Tricks of the Trade #1 - anaphora, antithesis and argumentum ad populum

‘Rhetoric’ is a Greek word, meaning the art of persuasion. It’s not surprising that it’s a Greek word, as rhetoric was big in Ancient Greece. Rhetoric is an important part of democracy, which the Greeks invented (democracy is also a Greek word - it means ‘rule by the people’) as democracy, like debating, involves different ideas competing, supporters of each trying to persuade people to agree with them. 

Some people think that the Ancient Greeks sat around in the sunshine debating the issues of the day in a calm, rational manner, listening carefully to each other and nodding their heads appreciatively at a particularly well made point, pausing in their discussions only to chew an olive or sip some ouzo. It wasn’t like that. 

Thousands of men (I’m afraid they were all men - and slaves weren’t allowed either) would gather on a hill in Athens called the Pnyx for regular assemblies to discuss the business of the city. Supporters of different policies would put their point of view, but they had to fight to be heard. Interruptions, barracking and personal abuse were all routine. If you’ve ever watched the House of Commons and been shocked by how badly behaved MPs are compared to the models of discipline and decorum that are your lessons, well, Parliament is like a Year Seven class on the first day in September with the strictest teacher in the school compared to the Ancient Greeks. You had to be loud, confident, entertaining and wily to get people just to listen to you, never mind agree with you. And it wasn’t only the assemblies; the courts were like that too. The Ancient Greeks were very litigious (that is, they liked suing each other a lot) and the average citizen went to court half a dozen times in his life. But unlike in our system, juries did not consist of twelve people sitting quietly in a box listening to the evidence; they ran to the hundreds, and they didn’t hold back in letting the litigants know what they thought of them. 

So, rhetoric in Ancient Greece was big, and it became big business. There was a whole class of people called sophists, who made a very good living teaching citizens the tricks of the trade of rhetoric; how to use language to persuade. 

Persuading is what debating is all about. The trade of rhetoric is the trade of debaters. In this series of posts, we’re going to be learning some of the tricks of that trade. It’s useful to know them, as deploying them in the right way will help make your speeches more persuasive. They all have Greek words to describe them, which you can drop in if you want to impress your English or Classics teacher. I’ll also give them descriptions in English for clarity. There are lots, so I'll post them two or three at a time.

Anaphora (varied repetition)
Repeating the same phrase at the beginning of several phrases, sentences or paragraphs. Probably the most famous example is Martin Luther King’s speech in favour of equal rights for African Americans in Washington in 1963 in which he begins successive sentences with the phrase ‘I have a dream … I have a dream …’, fixing in his listeners’ minds his vision of a better America. (It has become known as the ‘I have a dream’ speech.) In a speech on the motion, ‘This house would make the use of homophobic language illegal’ you might begin several sentences with ‘Gay people walk in fear because …’, each time giving a different example of homophobic violence.

Antithesis (balanced contrast)
Comparing one thing with another in balanced clauses. In debating, you would normally use this to compare what you are advocating with what your opponents are advocating, making it clear by the comparison that your version is better. E.g. in the debate on making homophobic speech illegal, ‘Do we want a world in which gay people walk in fear, or a world in which they walk in freedom?’

Argumentum ad populum (appeal to the people; actually a Latin phrase).
A direct appeal to the audience. A good way to make an emotional connection with your listeners. It can be in the form of a question (‘Is there anyone in this room who would keep silent when they heard a gay person being abused?’) or a statement (‘I know that no one in this room would keep silent when they heard a gay person being abused.) Can be a high risk strategy if the audience is not on your side; they might not give you the answer you want.


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